Part 1 Preview: This is the most exhaustive study on “Church” Government that you will ever need to study. I was surfing for an article that was both “death” on the word “church” as well as Biblically thorough on the subject of “Church Government”. This covers the latter, and I happen to know the writer. If you have any questions about the role (or lack of it) of the ministry in your life, there will be Scriptural answers here! Quit reading this as soon as you stop finding exceedingly uncommon truths that the churches don’t want you to know about (you won’t )! A major bonus is the definition of “ordination”. I seriously doubt that you know what it really means, but you really should know!
The Eternal God created men and women. He gave instructions on how we should live. They are in the Bible! So why are there so many hostilities, even wars, between “Christian” nations and between “Christian” churches?
Why is human history essentially the story of men fighting over questions such as “What is the right form of civil government?” “What is the right form of church government?” “Who should be in charge of such governments?”
Men have tried religious theocracies, where the church government is the state government. They have tried communism, where the state taught that there was no church or church government. They have tried systems where there are “two governments”—with separation of “church and state”. Both civil and church government have tried one-person rule, everyone rules (democracy), and every combination in between.
We can find historical examples where each kind of government was good for those governed, we can find more examples where each kind of government was bad. Each type of government has certain tendencies, but there are always exceptions (see the chart, below).
All types of governments are susceptible to evil influence and corruption. State or church governments that are “officially” run by monarchs or dictators in reality may be controlled by other—sometimes little-known—individuals. There are also examples of democracies where individuals paid so little attention to their own government that they either voted away their own proper role or passively allowed their rightful control to be taken away.
There is no single form of human government described in the Bible. Rather, there are many government principles and specific commands for certain aspects of government to be accomplished in a certain manner. The single most important principle of government is this:
When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan (Prov 29:2).
Please notice in the table at the bottom of this page that it is usually not the form of a government that determines whether it is good or bad. It is the righteousness or lack of righteousness in those who have control that make the difference. “Those in control” may be one man, a council, or an entire group of people.
Throughout history, people have placed far too much emphasis on being a citizen of the right nation or a member of the right church, rather than being concerned with whether or not they are acting righteously as individuals. Unfortunately, both leaders and followers often encourage this thinking. The leaders want their followers to think they have “the correct biblical form” of national or church government and that “God is on their side”. If followers believe that opposing their leaders is the same as “opposing God”, then they will not question them and the leaders are much more free to do what they want. Also, it is much easier for a follower to believe that he is “right with the Eternal” simply by being a member of the right nation or church, rather than actually having to live according to the righteousness described in the Bible. The process of yielding oneself to Christ and His Father on a day-by-day basis is much more difficult than putting up with the requirements of being a member of a nation or church organization.
Because of this innate desire of both leaders and followers to build nations and church organizations, the Bible teaching about how the Eternal governs through humans has been greatly obscured.
If you have not yet studied this subject in the Bible, you will probably be amazed to see what it says—and what it does not say! There are so many commonly held concepts that people believe are in the Bible which actually are not. There are other plain statements in the Bible that almost no one seems to practice.
The Eternal Has Worked In Different Ways Throughout History
Before we begin studying the Scriptures on how the Eternal governs, it is utterly essential to realize the diversity of ways that the Eternal worked with people throughout the Bible. While the Eternal does not change (Mal 3:6), the way He works with His people does change. In 2 Corinthians 3:6-8 we see a “ministry of death” and a “ministry of the spirit.” In 1 Corinthians 12:5 “There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord.” Hebrews 1:1-2 summarizes the issue: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds.”
There is no single “divine government” or “government of God” described in the Bible. It is an over-simplification to say that the Bible describes two governments, an Old Testament “Jewish” national government and a New Testament “Church” government. There are at least 10 kinds of governments described. While principles used in one government may apply to those used in other governments, we must be careful not to apply specific commands given to certain people in one situation to our situation today—especially when the Eternal has given us a different command.
1. Government in Heaven. The Eternal governs a large “host in heaven”: angels, archangels, cherubim, seraphim, the 24 elders, etc. The first three chapters of Genesis, Job 1:6-12, 1 Kings 22:19-22, Ezekiel 10, Isaiah 6 and many chapters of the book of Revelation give us some understanding of how it works. The different beings appear to have different functions and probably different ranks and authority. However, we find no command for humans to imitate God’s heavenly government—it is for perfect spirit beings, not humans.
2. Pre-flood Government. The first six chapters of Genesis give a very brief account of the world before Noah’s flood. A few other Scriptures refer to this time, such as: “Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him’” (Jude 14-15). There is little said about government or laws at this time, but a clear statement that most people did evil rather than good. We can be sure that they were not using the exact same laws given to Moses because Cain and Lamech were not put to death for murdering (Gen 4:11-12,23-24), as was later commanded to Israel (Gen 9:5-6; Ex 21:12-14).
Genesis 1:26 does show that man was given dominion over the entire earth, but does not show that he was given dominion over his fellow man. Another very important concept about all biblical government is found in this chapter. “Then God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night” (Gen 1:16). The original language Hebrew here really means “rule”. The Eternal could have chosen a Hebrew word that means “shine” or “light up”, but instead this is the first time we find a word for “rule”in the Bible. This is a good lesson for any rulers: The Sun and Moon provide a service to man; they are powerful; they let no man take away their position. Yet, they do not interfere in matters not part of their job.
3. Government of the Patriarchs. We find Abraham being commended for keeping the Eternal’s Laws (Gen 26:5), and some of the Israelites being condemned for not keeping them before the Eternal spoke from Mount Sinai (Ex 16:28). Exactly which laws they understood and kept is not certain. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could not possibly have kept the many laws given to Moses regarding the Levitical priesthood—no such priests had been born yet! Instead, they offered animal sacrifices directly to the Eternal. Abraham did not receive land from the Eternal, nor did he divide what he had fairly among all his sons (Acts 7:2,5; Gen 21:14; 25:6; Deut 21:15-17). When Abraham and Lot had their dispute over grazing land (Gen 13), they settled the problem themselves. There was no mention of judges or officials of any kind.
4. The Government Given to Ancient Israel. We have much information on this government in the books of Exodus through 1 Samuel. It was designed to be as fair as possible, with checks and balances included, realizing that humans would be running the government. For example, the priests and Levites were not given a land inheritance and were forbidden to acquire one—the Eternal knew there would be too much temptation for these leaders to use their power to amass empires for themselves. The Israelites were given a system of judges who only had authority when people went to them (Ex 18:16; Deut 17:8-9; 25:1). There was no ruler with power to tax people, to draft them into the military, or to tell them how to run their farm or business. The tithe given to the Levites for their services was a fixed amount that they could not try to increase. The Eternal was their King, not a man (Isa 43:15 and whole chapter). If they were obeying the Eternal, no standing army was necessary for “five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you” (Lev 26:8). Unfortunately, the people largely abused this freedom. The concluding verse of the book of Judges states: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Jdgs 21:25).
5. The Government of the Kings of Israel. This was the government that the Eternal allowed men to have because they wanted it; He said it would be oppressive (1Sam 8), but that it would still :work if they obeyed the Eternal (1Sam 12). The few times, when there were good kings, it went well for the people. But most of the time the government was bad for its citizens, leaders and neighbors. After King Solomon died, the people split into two nations, Judah in the south and Israel in the North. They fought each other for many years. Eventually, Israel was taken captive by Assyria and Judah was taken captive by Babylon.
6. Other Human Civil governments used by God. Daniel 4 marvelously demonstrates that the Eternal controls this world’s governments, even though He does not condone many of their actions (note especially verse 17). Jesus echoed the same principles to Pilate: “Jesus answered, ‘You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above’” (John 19:11). There are times when the Eternal uses one nation to punish another nation (Isa 10:5-7). The land of Israel was under the control of the Roman government when Christ came. Just because the Eternal uses these governments to accomplish His will, does not mean He agrees with all or even most of their actions. Human civil governments are often described as “beasts”in prophecy.
7. The Millennial Government. Many passages from the prophets, and many parables of our Savior, describe the Millennial government, a thousand years of rule by Christ and His faithful (Rev 20:4). David (Ezk 27:34), the twelve apostles (Matt 19:29), and others will be kings on thrones on earth. This government seems to be both a civil and religious government combining some aspects of nearly all the above governments. The most important thing to realize about this government is that it is not a government staffed by fallible humans, but by Spirit-born children of the Eternal. Today, the Eternal has established no thrones on the earth, only two in Heaven (1Pet 3:22; Rev 3:21). We should not apply scriptures designed for spirit beings to church leaders today.
8. Human Family Government. This government is limited in scope, but has more “authority” than any other human government. The death penalty was prescribed for those who cursed the Eternal or cursed their parents (Lev 24:16; Ex 21:17), but not for curing their rulers (Ex 22:28). Parents are given nearly complete authority over their children. (In ancient Israel, an incorrigibly rebellious son could be put to death upon the testimony of his parents—Deut 21:18-21. Also, a man was allowed to nullify a solemn promise that his wife or unmarried daughter made to the Eternal—Num 30:5,12). Nevertheless, wives and children cannot use “Dad said to do it” as an excuse to disobey the Eternal. Abigail was rewarded for following the Eternal, but disobeying her husband (1Sam 25) when he refused to feed those in genuine need (Deut 15:7-8). Furthermore, Paul taught: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph 6:1). Some church groups have claimed that they have a “family government”, and want to give their church leader all of the authority that a husband has in the family. This is a mistake, as the Bible teaches that Christ is the husband and head of the Church (Eph 5:23), not a human leader.
9. Government of Satan. Satan clearly has a kingdom on earth (Job 1:7; Matt 12:26; John 12:31; 2Cor 4:4). His followers are demons—angels that sinned (Luke 11:18, 2Pet 2:4). These demons vary in power (Mark 9:17-29). Satan’s demons sometimes act as “princes”over various countries of this world, and sometimes oppose God’s angelic messengers (Dan 10:12-13). Satan has often tried to make his government look like the true Church (2Cor 11:13). This began very early with Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24), and will culminate in a great false church and state system symbolized by the “beast” and “false prophet” (Rev 13-20). This makes it necessary for brethren to weigh the fruits of those who claim to be leaders. “And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars” (Rev 2:2). Two characteristics of these false governments are leaders who like to be “preeminent” over other men, and who “put people out of a church ”simply for associating with certain other brethren (3Jn 9-10). These verses in 3 John, as well as the letters to churches in Revelation 2 and 3, show false teachers and doctrines often get mixed up with the true Church. We should not simply point to a few church organizations and say “those are churches of Satan”, but we should realize that Satan will try to influence and corrupt the true brethren—even your group!
10. Government of the Church (the Assembly of Believers). This government is the main subject of the rest of this paper. We will cover it in great detail. It is the one government where our readers have the most personal choice: you can probably chose which religious government you will follow, but it may be difficult or impossible to choose a different national government. Since the Holy Spirit is available to the people in this government, it could be capable of reflecting the very love of the Eternal in its dealings. Unfortunately, even sincere believers are not yet perfect, and there are “tares among the wheat” (Matt 13:24-30)—false brethren and false teachers. The purpose of this government is not to replace national governments, but to promote peace and growth among the brethren and to train them to be kings and priests (Rev 1:6; 1 Pet 2:9).
What Many People Believe vs. What the Bible Actually Says
The following table shows the many differences between what people commonly believe and what the Bible actually states. Some of these things may surprise you, but we doubt very much that you can find any scripture to support any of the statements made in the left-hand column. We doubt that any leader in a church organization can do it either. But if you honestly finish reading this paper, you will see scriptures that prove the statements made in the right-hand column.
It is hard to overcome mistakes that have been with us for hundreds of years. This paper will also show you how even Bible translators were misled by “traditional Christian doctrine”, and sometimes put words into our English Bibles to support common church teaching, even though they realized that they were changing the message of the original languages. (You do not need to be a Greek or Hebrew scholar to understand these problems, you can see them yourself with English-language Bible helps.)
What the Bible Actually Says:
“The Church” consists of one or more church organizations, and the members who belong to those organizations.
The Church consists of people who are led by Jesus Christ and have the Spirit of God, no matter where they worship. The Bible nowhere encourages the formation of church organizations.
Christ is the head of the Church and He set up a human government in the Church so that all doctrinal questions and conflicts can be resolved and unity can be achieved.
Christ is the Head of the Church, but he taught that unity will be achieved by brethren who love and respect each other in spite of differences. There are examples of church leaders and brethren disagreeing without separating or declaring each other to be “unbelievers”.
Deacons take care of the physical aspects of a congregation and ministers take care of the spiritual.
The New Testament Greek uses the identical word for “minister” and “deacon”. The two different words were added in English translations. The Greek word simply means “servant”. The people who read Paul’s original writing could not possibly have understood separate “physical servants” and “spiritual servants”.
The New Testament ministers are a kind of replacement for the Levitical (Old Testament) priests.
The New Testament ministry and Levitical priests existed together for about 40 years. Some Levitical priests became believers. All believers are part of the New Testament priesthood.
Ordained ministers are needed to baptize people into the Church (often as infants).
It matters little who baptizes a person—the Scripture does not specifically say who must do it. A person becomes part of the Church only if they are truly repentant (hence infants should not be baptized).
Ordained ministers are needed to marry people.
Wedding celebrations are mentioned, but there is no example of a priest or minister “marrying” anyone. Marriages were made by agreements between the families involved. (Secular history teaches us that the practice of minister-performed marriages did not begin until about 1400 years after Christ.)
Ordained ministers are needed to preach funerals.
When people die, the living mourn, but there is never a mention of anyone preaching a funeral message.
Ordained ministers are needed to anoint the sick.
Believers can be anointed by elders—which are not necessarily “ordained ministers.” Healing also occurs via prayers of other believers—even if they are not elders.
Ordained ministers are needed to preach sermons in services.
The word “sermon” never appears in the Bible. A variety of brethren prayed, sang, taught, exhorted, and preached and used other spiritual gifts in each service.
Each Church should have a Pastor to preach, teach, counsel, visit the sick, warn those who are sinning, organize activities, and perform the other “ministerial”functions listed above.
Spiritual gifts are distributed directly by Christ among all believers. Believers are responsible for recognizing and using their gifts, rather than simply paying a “church pastor” to perform these needed functions as if he had all of the gifts. There is a gift of being a “pastor”, but it involves overall guidance of a congregation, not doing all of the items mentioned at left. Everyone is given one or more gifts!
Disobeying the leadership of your church group is like disobeying God. If a leader seems to depart from truth, members should wait for God to correct him.
Members should obey and cooperate with recognized leaders in the Church. However, they are also responsible to judge them by their fruits and by their teaching, and leave them if they depart from biblical standards. Each person is ultimately responsible for obeying the Eternal—even if leaders “go bad”.
A person becomes a minister when he is ordained by a previously ordained minister. Some believe there is an unbroken chain of ordinations all the way back to the apostles. Ordination comes about by a ceremony usually involving the laying on of hands, and is for life unless revoked by the group that ordained the minister.
There is no word in the Greek New Testament that has the meaning of “ordain” as defined at left. Major English translations disagree completely on where the word should be inserted in the New Testament—the New English Bible does not use it at all. The New Testament emphasizes God-given spiritual gifts to perform certain services. Those accepted into leadership positions are expected to meet even higher standards of personal behavior. Some men are given the gift of leadership. Some leaders are simply accepted by the brethren. Some leaders are appointed by other recognized church leaders. The physical act of laying-on-of-hands is sometimes involved in this process, but laying on of hands is used more often for many other things (request granting of the Holy Spirit, blessing of children, request healing, etc).
Church organizations and congregations have “church offices” that must be filled (pastor, minister, evangelist, bishop, apostle, missionary, treasurer, youth director, etc.). When offices become vacant due to death or departure, a new person must be selected to fill the office.
Apostles were the only thing close to a “church office” in the New Testament, but after Matthias replaced Judas, there is no record of “apostolic succession.” The New Testament records several leaders dying or preparing for their death, but none of them ever spoke about a successor. Rather, the entire focus of New Testament leaders is on those whom the Eternal chose to lead—usually confirmed by miracles or by appointment from the apostles (who did miracles). Today, we do not have recognized apostles like Peter and Paul to appoint local leaders, so we should look to those who have some fruit in their lives, rather than look to those who are “filling an office”.
Church organizations are necessary to produce a statement of beliefs so that everyone in the group can know what is necessary to believe for salvation.
The Bible contains no list of exactly what a person must believe or do to be saved. Each person must give their entire life to Christ. This may involve different things for different people. (In practice, doctrinal statements often discourage Bible study. Lazy people see little reason to learn things outside of the “required beliefs”, and studious people may fear being “kicked out” of their church organization if their Bible study reveals an error in their organization’s statement of beliefs.)
Church organizations are necessary to build church buildings, hold services, take care of the poor, spread the gospel etc.
The New Testament Church met in houses, synagogues, or in one case, a school. There is no mention of a “church building”. Believers were taught to individually take care of the poor. Collections were sometimes taken for poor people in specific other areas, but there is no example of an organization that collected money in a “poor fund”.
If the above statements appear unreasonable or impossible, please keep reading this paper! We readily admit that many good works have been done by people who were operating under the false assumptions of some of the doctrines mentioned in the left-hand column. This writer and nearly every believer he knows learned much Bible Truth from Bible teachers who had made some of these mistakes. But if we really want to obey and understand the close relationship that Christ promises to have with every member of His Church, then we need to read and learn what the Bible actually says.
The Foundation of Church Government from the Bible
We begin our study of church government by quoting Scriptures that are clearly about government. This makes much more sense than assuming our own ideas of government and then trying to justify them in Scripture. This writer encourages you to read every one of these verses even if you are already familiar with them. There are many good points here that most people have overlooked.
When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan (Prv 29:2).
But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God (1 Cor 11:3)
... submitting to one another in the fear of God. Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church (Eph 5:21-29).
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right (Eph 6:1).
Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5).
You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. These things I command you, that you love one another (John 15:14-17).
... But there was also rivalry among them [the apostles], as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary; he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves” (Luke 22:23-26).
So the Lord said to Moses: “Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tabernacle of meeting, that they may stand there with you. “Then I will come down and talk with you there. I will take of the Spirit that is upon you and will put the same upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone (Num 11:16-17).
Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business (Acts 6:3).
Then He called His twelve disciples together and gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases. He sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. (Luke 9:1).
After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go.... Heal the sick there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you”(Luke 10:1,9).
1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant.... 4 There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. 7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.... 12 For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. 18 But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased.... 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.... 25 that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another (1Cor 12:1,4-7,12-13,18,21-22,25).
To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us [everyone with the Holy Spirit, not just the “leaders”] kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (Rev 1:6).
Not that we [church leaders] have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy; for by faith you stand (2Cor 1:24).
But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His (Rom 8:9).
By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).
Principles From the Above Scriptures
1. It is good to have the righteous in authority, whether they are spirit beings, fathers, dictators, elected officials, congregational leaders, employers, military generals or any other position. The form of government matters far less than the righteousness of those who govern.
2. The strongest biblical line of authority is from the Father, to the Son, to a man, to his wife, to his children. Other governments are given almost no rights to interfere here.
3. Husbands and wives have much stronger authority over their families than the religious leaders have over the brethren. Just as our Savior only directs His People to do that which is good for His Church, a husband is responsible to direct his wife and family only in ways that benefit his wife and family.
4. All authority is to be used to serve others, not to elevate oneself. All the saints are to submit to each other as the need arises. Christ, who was far superior to His apostles, treated them as friends, telling them everything. How much more should righteous human leaders treat members as friends? All must be done in love.
5. We are all in training to exercise authority over others so we can help people who need it. All those who “endure until the end” will become kings and priests. The Eternal is not training one group (“ministers”) to exercise authority, and another group (“laymen”) to be only obedient followers.
6. The Eternal sometime chooses people directly, sometimes has men appoint people, and sometimes asks the group to pick people who are already exhibiting the fruit.
7. The Eternal gives spiritual gifts and power to people to do what needs to be done.
8. People are not considered members of the Church based on recognition by a church leader, but based on the Holy Spirit in them and the outward manifestation of love shown.
There are other scriptures and principles that could be mentioned. But the above points seem to be the foundation—repeated many times, and shown by many other examples in Scripture.
Satan has deceived the whole world, including, to the extent possible, “even the elect”—those with whom the Eternal is working (Rev 12:9; Matt 24:24). Many of the epistles written late in the New Testament period show that many false teachers had already entered the various church congregations:
For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work… (2 Thes 2:7).
...even now many antichrists have come.... 1 Jn 2:18).
For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ (Jude 4).
And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars (Rev 2:2).
Even secular church history records that as the first and second centuries passed, more and more church leaders claimed authority through their position and who “ordained”them, less and less claimed authority because of miracles or prophetic utterances directly from God (see Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, article Prophet).
Finding the truth of church history during the first few centuries after Christ’s death is often difficult. The last letter of John shows us that false leaders were often casting the true brethren out of the church (3Jn 9-10). Persecutions caused many of the early groups and their writings to be destroyed. Gradually, many church members began to look more and more to the “bishops”in various cities for leadership, and eventually the “bishops” began to look to the bishop in Rome and/or Constantinople for leadership. When the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion (313 A.D.), persecution of Christians was greatly reduced, but all hope was lost for the “organized church” to get back to a Christ-governed group of spirit-filled people. This officially recognized church maintained its outward form of religious services and preaching of righteousness, but internally operated like another political institution. The New Testament canon was finalized about this time. There certainly still were some brethren who were trying to live by its words and some who had verbally maintained the traditions of the first century church. But as time went on, these “Bible believers” began to be persecuted, both by governments and by the big organized churches.
Many more pages would be required to even begin to cover the doctrinal changes and other unbiblical practices that became incorporated into mainstream Christianity from this time onward. Since this is a paper on government, we will summarize what happened to the government.
Since New Testament teaching is based on the Old Testament, let us consider a few broad principles there. The government given to the Israelites through Moses was primarily a “rule of law”. The laws were written for everyone to see (Deut 27:6-8), and everyone, including the top leaders, were expected to follow them. When situations arose which the laws did not cover, or when there was a question of how the law was to be applied, then judges would render a decision. These decisions were either remembered or written down, and used again when similar situations occurred. As long as just judgments were made, this built up a very useful body of “case law” upholding the laws that the Eternal gave. Unfortunately, when unjust judgments are mixed into the system, the result is a complex mess of laws, which lawyers and their clients could cunningly use to “get around” the intent of the original law. This is the problem for which Christ chastised the leaders of his day (Matt 15:6)—a problem that plagues most Western democracies of our day.
Christ made it clear that He did not come to do away with the righteous law given by the Father (“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets”—Matt 5:17). He came to die for our sins and to give us the power to live a way of righteousness that exceeds the commandments written in stone. “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven”(Matt 5:20). “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2Cor 3:6). Christ showed that a person attempting to obey the law on his own could not save himself (Rom 3:20). It was not because the law was bad, but because sinful human beings simply cannot obey it under their own strength (Heb 8:7-8; Matt 11:27-30). Christ went on to give new spiritual principles for governing in His Church (Matt 18:15-20). He allowed his followers to make judgments apart from the existing Jewish legal system of the day. Christ offered a “new covenant”—a chance to start anew!
But as the Old Testament teaching was perverted by those who taught it, so was the New Testament teaching. The New Testament emphasis on leaders with spiritual gifts was replaced by ordination—appointment by some other human church leader. The New Testament emphasis on following the spirit, rather than the letter of the law, was perverted to do away with the law. This perverted teaching required members to obey the commands of church leaders (supposedly church leaders were more spiritual than anyone else), rather than Scripture. Even though the Scriptures forbid it, church leaders began to take on lofty titles, such as “father”, “teacher”, “master”, even “vicar of Christ”—which means “in place of Christ” (Matt 23:8-10).
After the fourth century A.D., most people who called themselves Christian were governed by a hierarchy or a hierarchical government. A hierarchy is a multi-layer government where the lowest level people are responsible to the first level of leadership, who are then responsible to the next level of leadership, who are then responsible to the top leader. The above describes a 4-level hierarchy, but hierarchies can have as few as three levels, or as many levels as one cares to imagine. Military governments typically have numerous levels. Hierarchies are the best form of government to make people do things that they do not want to do. People in hierarchies are usually commanded to exclusively follow the leader immediately over them, and not to obey or even talk to others in other parts of the hierarchy. Each leader has absolute authority over those underneath him—if they do not follow him, he can punish and get rid of them (in the military, execute them; in the church, cast them out). People are taught to follow without questioning or even knowing why they are carrying out their particular assignment. While it is the job of higher level leaders to make sure that lower level leaders are not misusing their authority, they are often unconcerned as long as the lower-level leaders are getting their job done. Before modern transportation and communication, it could take months to appeal from one level of government to the next higher level—the potential for abuse was high! When the top leader of a hierarchical government is both evil and clever, it is very difficult for anyone to change the situation—he often continues in his evil until he dies.
The mainstream Christian church hierarchy essentially consisted of members, who were sometimes governed by “deacons”. These deacons reported to a congregation pastor, who usually reported to a bishop (local overseer). The bishop may have reported to an arch-bishop (regional overseer), who reported to the head bishop (usually the Bishop of Rome). There were other bishops who fought for and sometimes achieved dominance over certain parts of the Christian world. As the years went by the “bottom line”for nearly all congregations was to “obey the dictates of Rome”, or risk excommunication. For about a thousand years (c 500-1500) A.D., the strength of this central “Roman Catholic Church” continued, and most members became further and further removed from the Bible. Worship services consisted of man-made liturgy. Messages often consisted mostly of “be good, work hard, and support your church and king”. What little Scripture that was read in the common service was usually in Latin—a language not understood by most people. Massive church buildings were built—often by forced or coerced labor (“you will go to heaven sooner if you work on this building for 20 years”). In the minds of the people, “the church” often was the building, and secondarily, the people who were in charge of it.
Once people are deceived into thinking that the Eternal requires them to follow certain leaders or a church organization, they become entrapped. The leaders demand obedience to themselves, and members feel like they are being–righteous and pleasing the Eternal when they please their human leaders. (If you are the politically-cooperative type, it is often much easier to please a human leader, than it is to please the Eternal.) These people rely on their organization to learn “new truth,” so it becomes very difficult for them to learn anything outside of their organization’s teachings.
During the 1400s the Roman Catholic Church was the supreme religious hierarchy in Europe. They began asserting more and more control over individual’s lives. Up to this time in history, most marriages were handled as a contract between the people marrying—or a contract between their parents. You can find marriage celebrations in the Bible—even a “master of the feast”—the person in charge of giving it (John 2:8-9). But you will look in vain to find a priest or minister officiating at any wedding. As might be expected of human nature, many people failed to live up to their marriage contracts. So “the church”offered their services and began to serve as a witness of the marriage contract, and to “give their blessing”. Not much later, they began to “perform” the ceremony. These practices continue through the Protestant reformation, and were even picked up by the Jews. Today, Rabbis officiate at weddings in a way that they would not have one or two thousand years ago. Similarly, the Catholic custom of administering “last rights”to the dead evolved into the modern custom of preaching a funeral service.
As Catholic control of members increased, so did corruption within the church. Anyone who disagreed with the leaders in even small points was branded a heretic. Heretics were hunted down by well-financed armies and sometimes given a chance to recant, but more often tortured or eliminated. Much money was extracted from the populace by a variety of unbiblical means. “Forgiveness from sins” was for sale in the form of written documents (“indulgences”) produced by local church officials. “Forgiveness”for very big sins was available from the Pope—for a higher fee. The people were often poor while the church was wealthy. In many areas the Catholic Church owned one fourth of all available land. Church offices were bought and sold. “Celibate” priests and monks had a steady stream of concubines or affairs with parishioners. The people doubted that this life-style was supported by the Scriptures, but Scriptures were read only in Latin, a language not understood by most people. Priests often interpreted Scripture to suit the needs of the moment.
The 1500’s was the century of the Protestant Reformation. Leaders such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and Jacques Lefevre originally sought reforms for these many abuses, but they found a Catholic Church that was in the habit of excommunicating anyone who challenged its authority. Advances in printing technology allowed the reformers to reach enough people tired of the church abuse. Many new independent denominations formed. Although many died for their beliefs, reform ideas found support even among a significant number of the nobility, providing havens for those persecuted in other districts.
During these times, over a dozen translations of the Bible were produced in European languages. Most were set in type and printed on the presses of the day. Most were banned; copies were burned; and over half of the translators involved were executed for their “crimes”. (Today, we would not view the job of “Bible translator” as a high-risk profession.) Some were killed by old church rulers. Some were killed by “Reformists” who wanted only “a little bit” of reform.
The following few pages of this article are slightly technical, but the information is essential to understand what has happened to the Bible, and the Bible-believing churches of our day. This writer is convinced that the time you spend with this will be well worth it.
In general, the King James Version (KJV) is a very good translation. As much as practical, it tries to maintain a word for word correspondence between the English text and the original language manuscripts. Yet in verses about government, the New Testament KJV contains many mistranslated words. These KJV errors became further entrenched as other translators copied them and as church administrators and other theologians wrote their doctrinal statements based on them. We are not talking about errors that only a Greek expert can detect, but many that you can easily verify from a concordance or Greek-English dictionary.
In England, Henry VIII was king from 1509 to 1547. He began as a staunch defender of Catholicism, but backed away as the Pope refused to grant him a divorce from his wife, Catherine, aunt of the powerful emperor Charles the Fifth. Henry felt he must have a male heir, which Catherine did not seem able to provide. In 1532 he declared himself head of the Church of England and outlawed any payments to the Pope in Rome. He continued to plunder the wealth of the monasteries, while at the same time executing heretics who denied the doctrines of his church. These doctrines were essentially the same as the Catholic Church—only the leader was different. Henry was not a theological reformer, but an astute politician who used the popular anti-Catholic ideas of the day to further his political goals. Those Europeans loyal to the Pope were too busy dealing with their own Protestant Reformation problems to mount a crusade to bring Henry VIII back into submission to the Catholic Church.
After Henry’s death, a council governed England from 1547 to 1553 while Henry’s son, Edward VI, was still too young to rule. Some religious reforms took place during this time, as well as persecution of Catholics. When Edward VI died young, Mary I, Henry’s oldest daughter returned to England and became Queen. She was married to the King of Spain, and was a devout Catholic. In a short time, she reestablished ties with Rome and began persecuting Protestants with a vengeance that earned her the title “Bloody Mary”. Reformers and English-language Bible translators were some of her chief targets. Mary died after five years, bringing Elizabeth I to power (1558-1603). Elizabeth favored the Church of England but allowed Catholics, as well as those wanting much more religious reform, to peacefully exist with only minor fines and restrictions. Most of this toleration continued even after she was “excommunicated” by the Pope. Several new translations of the Bible appeared during her reign. Puritans and other fundamentalist groups fed on their newly found knowledge of the Scriptures. Some of these groups were officially persecuted and the “heretical translations” were blamed.
With this background, King James came to the throne and the King James Version was produced. On January 6, 1604, only a few months after he began to reign, King James called a conference at Hampton Court Palace to settle some differences among the clergy. While little else was accomplished at the conference, most agreed that a single Bible translation was needed. Up to this point, nearly all of the historical information presented can be found in any standard encyclopedia under the articles “church”, “reformation”, and “Bible”. To find out exactly what happened at the conference, is a little more difficult. The following information came from the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition. (Later editions covered this information less thoroughly.) Original sources for the information are cited in the encyclopedias. (This history is not an essential part of proving what happened to the King James Bible—this is evident from the Hebrew and Greek reference works covered later. This history explains how and why it happened).
Dr. John Reynolds, president of Corpus Christi College, actually proposed the new translation. King James agreed and wrote that he “wished ... for one uniform translation ... and this to be done by the best learned in both universities; after them to be reviewed by the bishops and the chief learned of the Church; from them to be presented to the privy council; and lastly to be ratified by his royal authority; and so the whole church to be bound unto it and none other”. Forty-six men were assigned to the project, broken down into six groups that worked on sections of the Bible (Gen-2Kngs; 1Chr-Eccl; Isa-Mal; Apocrypha; Matt-Acts, Rev & Rom-Jude). The men were chosen without regard to party—they really were the best men. Fifteen rules were given to the translators, of which we will reprint some:
1) The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called “the Bishops’ Bible”, to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit.
3) The old ecclesiastical words to be kept, viz. The word Church not to be [correctly] translated Congregation, etc.
4) When a word hath divers significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most of the ancient fathers, being agreeable to the propriety of the place and the analogy of the faith.
6) No marginal notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek words which cannot, without some circumlocution, so briefly and fitly be expressed in the text.
8) Every particular man of each company to take the same chapter or chapters; and having translated or amended them severally by himself where he thinketh good, all to meet together, confer what they have done, and agree for their parts what shall stand.
9) As any one company hath dispatched any one book in this manner, they shall send it to the rest to be considered of seriously and judiciously, for his majesty is very careful in this point.
10) If any company, upon the review of the book so sent, doubt or differ upon any place, to send them word thereof, not the place, and withal send the reasons; to which if they consent not, the difference to be compounded at the general meeting, which is to be of the chief persons of each company at the end of the work.
11) When any place of special obscurity is doubted of, letters to be directed by authority to send to any learned man in the land for his judgment of such a place.
12) Letters to be sent from every bishop to the rest of his clergy, admonishing them to his translation in hand, and to more and charge as many as being skillful in the tongues and having taken pains in that kind, to send his particular observations to the company either at Westminster, Cambridge or Oxford [the three places were the work was being done].
Rules 8 to 12 show the great effort made to really arrive at a very good translation. Essentially, the project began with seven to nine men translating each verse themselves. This prevented a dominant personality from swaying all of the others. Anyone’s good idea would be considered. Differences were then worked out in meetings, first among the group and then among the group leaders. Any knowledgeable person in the country could be consulted for help. As a result, the basic translation was very good. Unfortunately, the church hierarchy and King James still had the ultimate say. Because of rule 6 (no marginal notes), the KJV Bible reader had little way of knowing which words of the Bible were the best possible translation, and which were the command of the King. Rule 3 shows that there were places where the King’s wishes overrode what would otherwise be linguistically correct. The King ordered that the Greek ekklesia be translated “church”, to support his religious organization even though “congregation” or “assembly” would be a better translation. [Tyndale was burned by the church largely due to refusing to use the word “church”!] We can know that ekklesia did not exclusively mean a Christian religious organization or building in first century Greek because the word is used three times to refer to an assembly of unbelievers in Ephesus (Acts 19:32,39,41). Rule 4 confirms that decisions were made in favor of church tradition (“commonly used by the most of the ancient fathers”) and to support church doctrine (“the analogy of the faith”).
King James spent much of his time with ecclesiastical matters. He saw himself as head of the Church of England and did not want other sects basing their doctrines on disputed knowledge of the Scriptures. He gave the translators time and provision to complete their task. The translators gave him what he wanted. They were certainly aware of the past hundred-year history of death-sentences for those who opposed the state-chosen religion (whatever it was). Many of them probably did not feel bad about the King’s and clergy’s changes of a word or two here and there. To many, the King was the head of “God’s government on earth”.
When a generous portion of error is mixed with truth, some of the error obviously sticks out and is quickly noticed. When a tiny bit of error is mixed with a vast amount of truth, it can go unnoticed for a long time. Such is the case with the KJV Bible. Only a tiny fraction of the KJV words were deliberately changed by the King and his religious advisers, but those few words had a great effect on church organizations for hundreds of years. To the Bible reader, the King’s doctrinal alterations were indistinguishable from the rest of the translation. So King James’ understanding of doctrine took on all the force and authority of an otherwise good translation of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. This paper will show the major errors that relate to church government. Some of these errors have been corrected by later translations, others still influence Bible translation today.